Central to a representative democracy is the existence and efficacy of the dialogue between citizens and their representatives. There are many ways and contexts in which this can be done."'It’s extremely disrespectful to be talking to a camera instead of human beings,' University of Iowa student Brad Pector said in his address to the regents."
-- Katelyn Weisbrod, "Concerns Voiced at Regents Public Hearing," The Daily Iowan (online), April 16, 2017
At the moment we're in the middle of one of them -- the party primaries and caucuses preceding a presidential election, with their accompanying opportunity for at least some citizens (starting with virtually all Iowans) to confront and question candidates one-on-one.
But the goals and methods of public dialogue are equally applicable in less dramatic contexts -- like the Iowa Board of Regents.
As if that was not discouraging enough, every other possible thing was done to minimize even the video camera's use.
* There was minimal notification of this stakeholder opportunity.Clearly, Mr. Rastetter needs some mentoring, or at least some exposure to alternative means of promoting the democratic dialogue between himself and those Iowans with a stake in the state's institutions of higher education -- namely, all Iowans.
* Indeed, anyone exercising the initiative to search for information on the Regents' Web page would have been misled. Even someone willing to make the effort, who knew how to find the Regents' Web page, and who knew that what they were looking for was misnamed "Regents Public Hearings Schedule," would have discovered from the home page-linked document that the latest "hearing" was held last February.
* Persistent hunting for a schedule including Friday's opportunity would have required much more initiative, far away from the home page. "Public Hearings Schedule" ("4:00 – 5:00 p.m. University of Iowa University Capitol Centre, Room 2520C").
* Of all the buildings President Rastetter could have chosen for their "hearing," the "University Capitol Centre" (without providing a street address) would be one of the least well known among out-of-towners, Iowa City residents, and even University old timers and new arrivals. Thus, for some who might want to attend this would at least require some additional modest research.
* Only a total of one hour of the video camera's time was made available to stakeholders, each of whom would be severely limited to a three-to-five-minute slice of the hour. "Board of Regents, State of Iowa, Notice of Public Hearings Schedule," February 11, 2016, p. 2 (the document linked from the Regents' home page that only references "hearings" in February).
* Even worse, the chosen day and hour were the worst possible from among the 40 working hours available that week: from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. on a beautiful, sunny, 70-degree Friday afternoon in April.
* But of course the greatest deterrent to participation was the futility of doing so. As The Gazette's Vanessa Miller has described these "hearings": "The hearings occur the week before the board meetings, last one hour, and are staffed by institutional transparency officers. No regents attend the hearings in person, and speakers must talk into a video camera. Their messages are recorded . . .. No one verifies board members watch the videos." Vanessa Miller, "Speakers at University of Iowa Hearing Criticize 'Troubling' Regent Communication Process; 'Step Up or, in Fact, Step Down,'" The Gazette (online), February 18, 2016, 7:36 p.m. And for more material regarding this procedure, Mr. Rastetter's support of it, and others' objections, see below "Additional Related News Stories."
Admittedly, it would be as shocking to his system as his running naked out of a Swedish sauna in winter and jumping into a snowdrift to expose him, so to speak, to the contrast between what he is doing and the methods used today by some of the world's greatest democracies -- like the British House of Commons Question Time, or President Obama's Web-based opportunity for constituents to put questions and demand answers. For Rastetter, this is going to require baby steps. "Question Time," Parliament, "How Parliament Works" ("Question Time is an opportunity for MPs and Members of the House of Lords to question government ministers about matters for which they are responsible. [It] takes place for an hour, Monday to Thursday, after preliminary proceedings and private business.") "We the People Petitions," Whitehouse.gov.
Julie Hirschfeld Davis, "Russian Plane Flew Close to U.S. Ship in Baltic Sea, White House Says," April 14, 2016, p. A8. (Photo credit: U.S. European Command; "An Su-24 Russian attack jet roars by the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea.")
What could be worse than that, you ask? Putin has endorsed Donald Trump! "'He is a bright and talented person without any doubt,' Putin said, adding that Trump is 'an outstanding and talented personality.' . . . [T]he Russian leader called Trump 'the absolute leader of the presidential race,' according to the Russian TASS news agency. Later Thursday [Dec. 17, 2015], Trump returned the warm words." Jeremy Diamond and Greg Botelho, "Putin Praises 'Bright and Talented' Trump," CNN Politics (online), December 17, 2015, including video of President Putin's endorsement, and Donald Trump's positive comments about Putin.
So how does this major communist country's leader, this Donald Trump enthusiast since last December, the fellow who was flying his attack jets at 500 mph near sea level and within feet of a U.S. Navy destroyer on Monday and Tuesday, how did he go about a dialogue with his people two days later?
President Vladimir V. Putin held his annual, live call-in show on Thursday [April 14] . . .. [T]he entire marathon [ran] three hours and 40 minutes, the 14th 'Direct Line' session . . .. Russians were clearly feeling vulnerable, as questions poured in about high prices, unpaid wages, rising utility bills, and the closing of schools and hospitals. In all, around three million questions were submitted by telephone and Internet . . .Neil MacFarquhar, "Vladimir Putin’s Vulnerable Side Is at Fore in Call-In Show," New York Times, April 15, 2016, p. A6.
For more on this communist approach to public dialogue, including a video of the entire program (with an interpreter in English), see the Russian publication Sputnik News' report, "Topic: President Putin Holds Annual Q&A Session," April 14, 2016, 5:20 p.m.
I only watched the start of the program, but if the opening question was any indication it didn't sound like a softball question to me. Putin mentioned that a disproportionate number of the three million questions dealt with the deteriorating quality of the roads. Indeed, the first questioner presented video of traffic on the roads in her town, complained of the impact on vehicles of the abundance of potholes, as well as getting in some licks about the lack of sidewalks and bicycle paths.
As for Putin's responsiveness, Rastetter might want to note the Times report that, "Some problems seemed to be addressed quickly. After the first caller, from the city of Omsk, complained about the poor state of the roads there, the city posted on Twitter pictures of new asphalt being laid down before Mr. Putin was off the air."
While he's at it, there are a couple of other things, beyond public dialogue and prompt responsiveness, he might ask President Putin about.
One is the tuition-free university education nations including Russia provide their students, and how we might be able to join this expanding group of progressive nations. "Russia provides free education for all its citizens as guaranteed by their Constitution . . .." "Educational System in Russia," "Graduate Studies in Russia 2016, MastersStudies.com. "State higher education institutions offer courses which are free of charge for Russian citizens . . .." "Tuition Fees," Education in Russia for Foreigners. Whatever Russia is doing, it seems to be producing results: "According to a 2012 OECD estimate, 53% of Russia's adults (25- to 64-year-olds) has attained a tertiary (college) education, giving Russia the highest attainment of college-level education in the world . . .. In January 2016 the US company Bloomberg rated Russia's higher education as the third best in the world . . .." "Education in Russia," Wikipedia.
The other is how Putin manages to have a firmer grasp of American politics than Rastetter -- who put his money (literally and figuratively) on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, while President Putin perceived Trump as the candidate more likely to emerge from the Republican contest. See, "UI's President Could Have Been Chris Christie," October 3, 2015.
In summary, both President Putin and President Rastetter take questions from constituents. But there the similarity ends.
President Putin receives the questions, he and his staff seem to select representative questions reflecting the issues of greatest concern to Russians, and then Putin answers or otherwise at least acknowledges and responds to them. Iowans cannot know whether President Rastetter and other Board members even watch the videos of Iowans' questions; what Iowans can know is that they will not receive any acknowledgment their questions were even received, and they certainly won't be getting answers, responses, or opportunities for dialogue.
President Putin, at least on this occasion, devoted nearly four hours of his "Direct Line" program to this dialogue, during hours convenient for the greatest number of people, broadcast nationwide, during which he was an active participant. President Rastetter devotes one hour, during the day and time least likely to encourage participation, in which neither he nor any other Regent participates.
President Putin receives three million questions from 143 million people. A comparable goal for President Rastetter, based on the comparative population of Iowa, as he slowly evolves the Regents' procedure to the standards of communist countries, would be 60,000 inquiries from Iowans -- something like 10,000 times the current level of participation. Hopefully, of course, he will in time be able to far exceed these mere communist standards.
Additional Related News Stories
Jeff Charis-Carlson, "UI Commentators Call for New Head Regent; Views Recorded at Public Hearing," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 16, 2016, p. A3
Jeff Charis-Carlson, "UI to Break Record for Comments to Regents? Input at Last 2 Video Hearings Set New Records," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 14, 2016, p. A3
Vanessa Miller, "Regents President Rastetter Criticizes Behavior at University of Iowa Town Hall for Harreld; Rastetter Praises Harreld's Efforts," The Gazette, February 25, 2016, 5:00 p.m.
A shorter version of this blog essay appeared in The Daily Iowan as "What Putin Can Teach Rastetter," The Daily Iowan, May 6, 2016, p. 4; and also available as a blog entry here. For the record, the text submitted to the paper was as follows:
Iowa Board of Regents President, Bruce Rastetter, appears to need some mentoring regarding the democratic dialogue between the Regents and the stakeholders of Iowa’s state universities -- namely, all Iowans. It might be too much of a shock to start with examples from the world’s great democracies – like the British House of Commons Question Time, or President Obama’s “We the People Petitions.” That would be like Rastetter running naked from a Swedish sauna and jumping into a frigid snow bank. No, it’s best he begin with baby steps. Perhaps he should start by studying the communist countries. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, spent his 20s and 30s with the KGB. Rastetter could begin by aspiring to achieve Putin’s style of democratic dialogue. So how does this major communist country's leader, this Donald Trump enthusiast since last December, the fellow whose attack jets flew at 500 mph near sea level and within feet of a U.S. Navy destroyer April 11 and 12, how did he go about a dialogue with his people two days later? As the New York Times reported, Putin’s “live call-in show [ran] three hours and 40 minutes . . .. [Q]uestions poured in about high prices, unpaid wages, rising utility bills, and the closing of schools and hospitals. In all, around three million questions . . ..” From the opening question, this was no nine-inning softball game. Putin acknowledged how many questions dealt with poor roads. Indeed, the first questioner showed a video of traffic on her roads, complained about the abundance of potholes, and even got in some licks about the lack of sidewalks and bicycle paths. As for Putin's responsiveness, Rastetter might want to note the Times report that, "After the first caller [from Omsk] complained about the poor state of the roads there, the city posted on Twitter pictures of new asphalt being laid down before Mr. Putin was off the air." There are a couple other things Rastetter might discuss with President Putin. One is the tuition-free university education Russia provides its students, and how Iowa might join this expanding group of progressive states and nations. (Russia has the highest percentage of college educated citizens in the world.) The other is how Putin gained a firmer grasp of American politics than Rastetter -- who put his money (literally and figuratively) on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. In December, President Putin already perceived Trump (whom he’s praised) as the candidate most likely to win the Republicans’ nomination. In summary, both President Putin and President Rastetter take questions from constituents. But there the similarity ends. President Putin takes the questions of greatest concern to Russians and answers or otherwise responds to them. Iowans get no responses; it’s not clear Regents even watch their video comments. President Putin gave the exchange nearly four hours, on nationwide television, during convenient times for viewers, in which he was an active participant. President Rastetter devotes one hour, during times least likely to encourage participation, in which no Regent participates. President Putin receives three million questions from 143 million people. A comparable goal for President Rastetter, based on Iowa’s population, would be 60,000 inquiries from Iowans. Hopefully, of course, he will soon be able to far exceed these minimalist communist standards. [For more: tinyurl.com/jpoho97]